Amherst Magazine

Awakening the Eye

By Jennifer Acker '00

A First-Year Seminar fulfills its promise, asking students to describe forcefully the art they see.

If she could have arranged it, Natasha Staller would have welcomed students to the first day of class with the strings of flamenco guitars in a fragrant grove of orange blossoms, the heat and sun radiating off our backs—so much did the fine arts professor want her class to absorb the culture of Spain. She recounted Andalusian superstitions and we played surrealist games: An understanding of the country’s natural and social traditions is crucial to understanding its art, Staller repeatedly tells receptive students in her fall 2000 First-Year Seminar, The Arts of Spain.

We begin with women. Staller projects onto the wall an image of a girl in a red dress, painted by Picasso at age 15. We—Staller, 15 first-year students, and I, the participant observer—spend 10 minutes reviewing the slide: what mood the painting suggests, what tone it projects and how it characterizes its subject. Staller solicits comments from each individual as we view the series of Picasso’s women: a girl dressed in white kneeling at an altar, a Parisian hustler-type with red lips, an aristocrat with “a bow like a noose around her neck,” as one student describes her. The women are diverse—emaciated and plump, painted in fluid watercolors or with slabs of oil. In this class, Staller says, students will learn the language of visual analysis (with some español mixed in), and, congruously, learn to communicate their findings. Writing is tantamount to seeing. She designed this class, her first First-Year Seminar (FYS), according to these interdisciplinary principles.

“What can a line be?” Staller asks on our second day of class, pointing to a work by Franz Kline. “Aggressive,” says one student. Another suggests the painting is “a perversion of Chinese art.” Next we are shown a Botticelli with soft, hazy contours. Staller asks us to raise our arms and experiment with the feeling of painting; we move just our fingers first, then only our wrists to experience the sensation of moving a brush across a canvas. The harsh angles of Mondrian provide a third example of what a line can be. The Fayer­weather classroom is hot with late-summer air, but there is a crisp energy in the room. Students bend their heads to note answers to “What can color be?” when shown works by Rothko and Tintoretto. Looking at Monet’s haystacks we learn that brushwork is known as “facture,” and the French Impressionist used a thick application of paint called “impasto”: it reminds Staller of the icing on a cake.

Teaching students “how to see” was a primary goal for the professor, she says later. “What can a line be? Looking at a razor-straight Mondrian, a delicate, undulating Botticelli, and a raw, crude Franz Kline. It’s a whole new way of thinking. A whole new way of apprehending the world.” She adds that each one of the students showed marked improvement; their eyes and minds became sharper.

The dynamic of Natasha Staller’s classroom is similar to that of other professors, but different, too. She begins class alternately behind a podium with lecture notes and sitting at the top of our horseshoe-shaped tables asking for impressions from the readings and films—anthropological investigations of Spanish machismo, broad surveys of Spanish art, treatises on Miró, Picasso and Dalí, poems by Federico García Lorca, Buñuel’s surrealist film Le Chien Andalou and, the class’s favorite, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, by Salvador Dalí. Students say the difference in Staller’s teaching style comes from her emphasis on participation, her insistence that each student speak at least once during each class. To individuals who like to comment frequently she gently reminds them, “You’ve already made a good comment; let’s hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet.” Though this can be a difficult en­vironment for quiet students who have in the past deferred to others, or typically express their ideas only in writing, most appreciated Staller’s encouragement. Emily Stark’s mother is an artist, so the first-year student is no stranger to terms like “facture” and “modulation”; yet she likes the classroom democracy, saying, “I think it’s really good how Professor Staller makes a point for everyone to speak.” Stark’s other classes are larger lectures where three to four students “dominate” the class “and everyone else struggles to stay awake.” Karen Close admits she’s usually a quiet student, “except in English I always had something to say—but with [Staller], she makes it so that no matter what you say you feel like it’s something important. That kind of encouragement is good.”

Ana Yarawamai adds another perspective to this methodology. Late in the semester, she notes that the class’s lively debate about Dalí was the “best discussion all semester. . . everyone was contributing their own comments. The flow was back and forth.” Carefully soliciting comments from each indi­­vidual has the potential to stifle class discussion, she says. “I feel bad for people who want to talk. What if they really wanted to make a point?”

This emphasis on participation worked alongside the most distinguishing characteristic of the class—its composition of all first-year students—to introduce the college newcomers to the format and structure of seminars, to create a comfortable environment free from the pressure of upperclass students. Nick Peder­son was “admittedly intimidated” in his class on Chaucer, stacked with junior and senior English majors with a wealth of reading behind them. In Staller’s First-Year Seminar, where he contributed regularly, he says, “I feel more at ease. I have no reason to feel intimidated. That’s a very good thing about freshman seminars in general, putting yourself in as comfortable a setting as possible.” Other students echo that sentiment. Claudia Gunter came to Amherst from a boarding school, and is used to intense academics and living away from home, but she still valued Staller’s efforts to help first-year students “acclimate to a college environment.” She perceived that some of her seminar classmates were nervous at first: “It’s a room full of new people. College. The big league.”

The Arts of Spain was Gunter’s first choice. First-year students are sent course descriptions mid-summer, and are asked to indicate a preference for at least eight of the offered courses, circling, but not ranking, their top three. In 2000-01, 21 seminars were offered; some were split into sections and team-taught. The First-Year Seminar is part of a curriculum adopted in 1996 (it was previously called Introduction to Liberal Studies), and it is Amherst’s only mandatory course aside from departmental major requirements. The seminars intend to expose students “to the diversity of learning that takes place at the College,” reads the preface to the seminar descriptions, and to provide “a sample of the nature of the institution and what actually takes place in the College: what people do at Amherst and how they do it.”

Gunter knew even before Amherst that art and Spanish are her passions, and she intends to double major. Staller’s own enthusiasm has made her even more excited about these studies, saying the professor has “a passion that infects all of us.” How Karen Close ended up in a First-Year Seminar on the arts of Spain—when she’d always taken French and had vowed that, after high school, she would “never take an art class, never take a science class, and never take a math class”—is a mystery to her; but two-thirds of the way through the semester she acknowledges that she’s considering taking another art class somewhere down the line. Close especially enjoyed the segment on Picasso, Staller’s own area of intensive research, where the class was shown slides of early sketches by the artist and other primary source material that is unpublished anywhere. “Because she knows so much,” Close explains, “you could tell how much she loved it. She presented it very well.” As for seeing rigorously, Close says, “It’s true. You do have a new eye. You can see so much more.”

Awakening this dormant eye is, for Staller, one of the greatest joys of teaching. She comments that many of the students hadn’t thought much about art before, but “several came up to me as the semester was progressing. They were incredibly excited; the world was starting to look different to them.” Throughout the semester she remarked on the students’ varied backgrounds and personalities, and tried to encourage them to discover individual passions of their own. Part of the motivation for displaying her own research was to give them a taste of independent scholarship: “I try to communicate the thrill of discovery to them. Scholarship is like being an explorer.” For some students the message sinks in, others pass over the thrill and just get the papers done. At the end of the semester Staller is able to recount the development of several individuals, commenting on one’s keen eye, another’s vibrant creativity, the “poetic passages” and “musical cadences” in the writing of a third; she describes yet another student as “very analytical, burning right through to the main points.”

Staller was invested in the development of the first-year students to the extent that she called them if they missed class, or if she was particularly struck by something they wrote or said. This concern extends beyond their class performance to their general health and well-being, manifesting itself in what she describes as a “grandmotherly quality”; she stopped mid-lecture during finals to remind everyone to get enough sleep and stay healthy; on Election Day we were reminded to vote.

Some classes in college have a turning point, a particular day or event that unites students in some way and forms a closeness that feels, at least temporarily, like community. The Arts of Spain had such an event: a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The trip is on a Friday, and not all students are able to go, but the majority of us scurry out of the pouring rain into the van, break open our Valentine-packed lunches—Staller encourages us to “imagine we’re eating suckling pig” or some other Spanish delicacy, while a student claims it reminds him of summer camp—and head into the city. In the back of the bus, conversation roams from comparing roommates to the perception of Amherst within the Five Colleges to adjusting to Amherst academics. There is praise for the open curriculum, and, overall, no vehement expressions of stress. Irv Rakhlin was worried about being able to keep up intellectually with his peers: “I thought everyone would walk around doing E=mc2 in their heads. But now it feels okay.” Mike Langer says he’s relieved that, so far, the stress level is lower than in high school. “If anything is more stressful than junior year of high school I’m going to jump off a bridge,” Rakhlin replies.

Once at the museum we are whisked down hallways with displays of Paul Revere’s silversmithing
until we knock on a closed door—one we would walk right past on a normal day—marked Morse Study Room. This day, however, is special. We are welcomed by Patrick Murphy, of the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs. The room feels clean and wooden, bright with overhead lights that obscure the gray and rain outside. The dull green, blue, red and black spines of books occupy most of the walls. On narrow shelves built into the bookcases are what we have come to see: numerous, precious, unique sketches and prints by Picasso and Goya (Franscisco de Goya y Lucientes). Picasso’s work is arranged chronologically, from the Blue and Pink periods to Cubism to later work. We are quiet and awed, hands by our sides. Murphy warns us not to lean on the bookcases because they are retractable and warns us to be careful with the prints: “No sneezing on them. Or drooling.”

The first one I am drawn to we had seen on a slide in class, a harrowing etching of a destitute older couple called “The Frugal Meal.” The handwritten inscription reads, “A Mlle Gatt. Son admirateur. Picasso. 1905.” This is the real thing, not on a wall but propped in front of me. All around there are questions for Staller: How many prints of this were made?  How does she authenticate a “real” Picasso? We stand in front of a print with a large bull’s face, the fur a dense mass of lines that must have taken forever to carve—earlier in the semester we took a trip to the print room in Fayerweather, and each took a turn scratching a line into a copper plate, realizing what difficult, detailed work it is. “What special properties do you think these prints have, instead of paintings?” Staller asks, seizing a teaching, critical-thinking moment, and adding, “At this point he was so un­believably rich he couldn’t have been making copies. Why black and white?”

We gather in a semi-circle and Murphy brings out, one by one, Goya’s Los Caprichos series; some are earlier drafts of what we have seen in our book. The MFA has the largest collection of Goya prints in the world outside of El Prado in Madrid. Most have been in the museum’s possession for a long time; they are too expensive to buy these days. The white paper positively glows against the black ink. We look at a print of  “The Colossus,” a huge and brooding figure looking darkly over its shoulder at the viewer, a sliver of crescent moon above its head. Nick Pederson puts his hands on the chair in front of him, locks his elbows straight and engages the gaze of the Colossus. Staller exclaims in a muted voice, “This is so beautiful I can’t stand it!” We nod and remain silent.

As we prepare to leave the sanctity of the print room, I notice Gunter has been sketching Goya’s “The Resignation,” a woman draped in fabric slumped against a tree. I ask her what she’ll do with the sketch, which seems a remarkable likeness to me. She shrugs and says she doesn’t know.

We take a short tour through the Impressionism room, “to see some color,” as Mike Langer suggests. A Boston native, as anyone might guess from his permanently affixed Red Sox hat, Langer said earlier in the day, “We used to go to the museum when I was little. It was so boring. Now, I’m really excited.” There are jokes about needing to have a buddy or hold onto a yellow rope. Independence is still a new frame of mind for many of the students, and they distance themselves from the humiliation of traditional field-trip monitoring. Ana Yarawamai stands in front of an enormous, famous Gauguin titled “Where are we from? Who are we? Where are we going?” and featuring South Pacific women drawn in lush, jungle vegetation. “This one makes me homesick,” she says. It’s the colors: “It looks like old Hawaiian art. My mother really loves Gauguin.” She tells me her mother teaches art history and studio art at her old high school in Kamuela, Hawaii. “My mom would be so amazed at what I’m seeing right now. You never see stuff like this in Hawaii.” She turns to classmate Chris Chambers-Ju and asks him which painting is his favorite. He points out a cubist Picasso nude at the far end, but adds, “I’m not sure if I like the pastels, the pinks and blues.” He says that Goya’s “Saturn Eating His Children” is the wallpaper on his computer. Just go to artcat.com and you can download it for free.

While we wait for the bus to pick us up, Staller buys treats for the class: apple pastries, chocolate tiramisu-like cakes and cheesecake. A round of “Thank you, Professor Staller” is mumbled between bites.

There is precision to Staller’s language, her historical and analytical lectures and spontaneous descriptions of visual and literary art. She coaxes specific, detailed comments from her students. Throughout the semester I scribbled words on the margin of my notes to look up after class: adumbration, mellifluous. When I mention to Staller that her vocabulary is impressive she replies that she used to read the dictionary for fun: “One of the challenges about art and writing about art is to find a really apt word, ‘le mot juste,’ to communicate what symbolists call the perfume of a word, the personality of it, the tonality.

It’s like what we did with line. By picking the most, almost excruciatingly apt word, you see and think more rigorously.” Staller is suffering from a bad cold now, at the semester’s end, and she lapses for a moment. She is wearing a green jacket that flares around the waist and has faux fur cuffs. Karen Close says that Staller’s lectures sometimes go over her head, and she wonders how much of the deluge of material presented she actually needs to know. Nick Pederson, himself well-spoken, says he sometimes feels Staller speaks above the level of the class with questions like “‘What’s the expressive tonality of this work?’ I don’t know what that means.”

“It’s just fun,” Staller resumes, “Then it’s this wonderful challenge: What’s the word? What’s the most vivid word to capture this magical image? Not just the cadence of the words. Think about it. It’s the rhythm.” While waiting for students to comment on slides, Staller often thumps the floor with her wooden pointer or pounds her palm on a desktop. Now I understand why: she’s measuring out the rhythm the work expresses to her: Beethoven’s Fifth, thump-thump-thump-thump. Especially important in writing are beginnings and endings. “Do you wrap it up with a chorale finale, or is the best ending a reflective, meditative flute, just a solo flute?” Staller asks.

Writing is art in its own right, and the art history professor wants her students to think of their papers in this way—fiercely argued and rich with meticulous, vivid details. Before the semester began she had planned on assigning a long, 15-20 page research paper. But as she spoke with other FYS professors, and began to teach her first one, she realized a better way to focus on students’ writing was through a series of short papers, a relatively short midterm, and final. Most students thought the short paper assignments were straightforward; sometimes Staller requested a page of bullet points summarizing the main ideas of an article. Her concern is not that students do not read critically—they are vigilant and vocal critics—but that they are unpracticed at synthesizing information and presenting it succinctly. “Because these were first-year students,” she says, “I thought it could be useful to have a whole cascade of papers and work on clear arguments, crystalline structures, marshaling evidence with care, to give them a sense of the big picture but having all the data to make their points.” Students did improve over the semester, though many were frustrated by the lag time between when the papers were turned in and when they were returned.

One student in particular showed dramatic improvement in his writing, and Staller glows as she describes his development. In the beginning of the semester he produced detailed but chaotic papers. She called the student and said, “This is really a problem, but you’re lucky it’s your first semester of college, so let’s work on it.” At the end of the semester the student produced one of the best papers of the entire class and handed it in with a sense of accomplishment Staller describes as “euphoric.”

If seeing Goya’s and Picasso’s prints in person was the visual high point of the class, then Salvador Dali’s autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí was their literary equivalent—the artist’s paintings inspired more confusion than excitement. The first reactions voiced in class are disdain for Dalí’s character; he reports pulling unforgivably cruel pranks and revels in extreme narcissism. Pederson, however, admits that, “Even though I wouldn’t want to be one of his friends, I can’t help it, I really enjoyed all of his stories. I know it’s a bad thing to kick a fellow student off a bridge and trample on him, but his stories are funny. The sheer joy of the irrationality of it.” Staller agrees that Dalí was “probably one of the weirder people who ever lived.”

Pederson cautions that we must be careful to separate an artist’s work from  his personality: “We don’t choose our artists because of their ethics or friendly personalities.” Chris Chamber-Ju adds that we’re just falling into Dalí’s emotional trap by letting his diatribes offend us. Rakhlin says he didn’t think this book was about art. Jessica Maratsos, who deferred college for a year to dance in Minneapolis, and describes her family as a “museum family,” responds calmly, “I think the book has everything to do with art. He invokes his fantasy life, for example.” Rakhlin is not persuaded.

Three hands shoot up. . . and they’re off! This is only the second time all semester that students have engaged directly with each other; the tendency has been to speak to Staller, to use her as an intermediary. This fervent dialogue is exciting to watch. The seminar spirit, fostered throughout the semester, has taken hold. It is temporary and unpredictable, but real and affirming for the moment; the energy is felt around the room.

When class is released students continue to trade anecdotes about Dalí’s life, “Remember when he. . . ?” “That was so weird.” “And did you read the part about the. . . ?”

On the last day we are welcomed by a spread of crusty French bread, melty camembert cheese— which we have learned was a favorite of Dalí’s, for both appearance and taste—and a bouche de Noël, French log cake. (Staller had asked if we minded eating French instead of Spanish treats, and Maratsos had responded that it was only appropriate because so many of the Spaniards we studied spent most of their artistic careers in Paris.)

“Would you know he was Spanish?” Staller asks about Federico García Lorca, whose poems we’ve read for today. What do we know about the country through studying its art—and vice versa? How sharp have our analytical tools become?
Someone mentions the line about “white lily and blood,” on page nine. Jade Tam says the poem about women’s handkerchiefs would have tipped her off. We have learned about the visceral and dramatic descriptions and symbols that permeate Spanish art. Chambers-Ju mentions the recurrence and power of the moon (Nobody eats oranges/under the full moon./One must eat fruit/that is green and cold).

Then, out loud, we read through Lorca’s famous “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” two lines at a time, to hear “the inexorable drumbeat,” Staller says. We pause and she asks about the mention of a dove and a leopard—What kind of image is that? What about its internal scale? Later, “Can snow really sweat?” Iridescent with agony. Though poems are constructed with words the image is always present. 

A final question before we are released: “Do you feel closer to Spain now?” Quiet nods ripple around the room. Students are already moving on to their next class, the next paper, looking forward to vacation. They dissipate like orange blossoms on a breeze, leaving their first college semester behind. The weather has turned cold and odorless. Spain will always be there. Now we know what to look for.